Donald Tsang

Prosecutors in Donald Tsang trial accuse former leader of public relations ‘stunt’

Trial hears Tsang made a ‘pre-emptive and strategic disclosure’ to local media in order to avoid further scrutiny

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 6:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 10:41pm

Former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen embarked on a “pre-emptive”, “strategic” and “manipulative” public relations stunt – including penning an article for the Sunday Morning Post – when details of the luxury retirement penthouse he allegedly tried to hide came under the scrutiny of the press, prosecutors told his high-profile corruption trial on Friday.

Just before he wrapped his three-day opening address, prosecutor David Perry QC called Tsang a “a clever politician trying to control the way public sees his conduct” by deploying “classic politician’s speak”.

He accused Tsang of appearing forthcoming to the press, even though he made just the “bare minimum” of details known and suppressed “key facts” about what the prosecutors said was his corrupt relationship with a local radio station and its boss when he held office.

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When grilled by a radio host on one occasion, Perry said, Tsang appealed to the public by saying he was a “Hong Kong boy” and a Christian, and blamed things on the increasingly high public expectation to shift focus.

“You will have to decide whether someone who goes to church can still be corrupt,” the prosecutor told a panel of nine jurors on Friday.

Tsang, 72, is standing trial for one count of accepting an advantage as the chief executive. The former leader, who led the city from 2005 and 2012, has denied the bribery charge.

He is accused of receiving at least HK$3.8 million in refurbishment and design fees for the renovation of a luxury penthouse in Shenzhen he planned to retire in after he stepped down as chief executive.

The prosecutors said it was a reward for Tsang to become “favourably disposed” to Wave Media, of which the major shareholder was Bill Wong Cho-bau, the owner of the penthouse through his mainland company.

This included approving Wave Media’s various applications between 2010 and 2012, including a digital broadcasting licence, when he headed the city’s top advisory body, the Executive Council.

But Tsang had never disclosed his tie and negotiation with Wong about the penthouse, which is fitted with a calligraphy room, gym and a winery, the prosecutors said.

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Tsang claimed he had paid rent, but the prosecutors said investigators from the Independent Commission Against Corruption could find nothing but a 800,000 yuan payment from Tsang’s wife to Wong’s company in 2010.

The prosecutors said part of it came from Bank of East Asia chairman David Li Kwok-po, also a shareholder of the broadcaster, and it was for the Tsang’s to purchase the penthouse at an undervalued price.

On Friday, Perry said months before Tsang was supposed to move into the Shenzhen property, other suspicions – about him riding on a friend’s yacht to Macau – began to emerge in local newspapers Oriental Daily and The Sun on February 20, 2012. Two days later, he was again accused by the press of taking a friend’s private jet to Phuket, Thailand.

When he appeared on Talkabout, a Radio Television Hong Kong’s programme, to give his explanation, he made a passing mention on the sideline about the Shenzhen property for the first time.

Perry accused Tsang of doing so because he anticipated the wider media coverage on the penthouse which would come on the following day. “It is the defendant making a pre-emptive and strategic disclosure,” he said. The newspaper reported about the penthouse extensively on February 23.

He said Tsang then wrote a “very careful” article in the Sunday Morning Post, headlined “It’s time to rewrite the rule book”, run on February 26, the same day an advertisement for Wong’s Shenzhen East Pacific Garden was published in various newspapers as an attempt to clear the air, Perry said. The advertisement was co-managed by radio personality Albert Cheng King-hon, also a shareholder of Wave Media, who introduced a designer to the Tsangs for the penthouse, he noted.

That morning, the prosecutor said, Tsang went on to Commercial Radio’s Beautiful Sunday to tell the host that he was a “Hong Kong boy” and a “Christian”. Thanks to the media, Tsang told the host, he knew about the public’s increasing expectation and pledged to set up an independent review committee to review the current system – similar to what he mentioned in the Sunday Morning Post article.

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But Perry countered: “It’s got nothing do with people’s expectation.” He said it was his way of shifting the attention to set up a committee that would look generally into the city’s system rather than Tsang’s alleged misconduct.

All along, Perry said, Tsang had never revealed his negotiation with Wong dating back to 2010, the secret payment of 800,000 yuan, and the Tsangs’ meetings with internationally reclaimed designer Barrie Ho Chow-lai, who had been redecorating the property according to the Tsangs’ specification and was alleged paid for by Wong’s company.

The prosecutor also said the information on the advertisement, published on the day Tsang was on Commercial Radio, was inconsistent with the a supplementary agreement, which came with the lease, the former leader claimed he had entered into. While the advert said the rent would not be inclusive of utility bills such as water and electricity, the lease said it would.

“It was [a sign of] panic when the press were onto it, and they couldn’t even get the story straight,” said Perry. He added investigators from the Independent Commission Against Corruption found no rental payments to start with.

Perry said the Tsangs had eventually terminated the lease on August 10, and forfeited the rent he said they had never paid. “But why if it’s innocent?” Perry posed the question to the jury.

The case continues before Mr Justice Andrew Chan Hing-wai on Tuesday.